SEA Scholar of the Month for June 2019: Toni W. Jaudon
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I didn’t know anything about how wonderful early American literatures could be until I started taking classes with Shirley Samuels during my graduate studies at Cornell. Her seminar on distinctly U.S. forms of violence pulled me away from the post-1945 literatures I’d come to Cornell to study. In a lot of ways early and mid-19th century texts struck me as infinitely more complex, both stylistically and politically, than the formally experimental texts I’d been reading in seminars on postmodernism and psychoanalysis. They were evocative and resistant and strange in ways I hadn’t experienced before, or hadn’t known how to experience, maybe. Once I got into the early 19th century, it was a quick move back to somewhat earlier texts, though I think of myself as really a “late” early Americanist.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
So many choices! I have an ongoing fascination with the encyclopedias and dictionaries of religion that circulated in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular Hannah Adams’ versions. Reading those works has made me appreciate how complex and fraught compilation can be. I also continue to return to the fragmentary narratives that offer accounts of African and creole religious practices from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nicole Aljoe’s work on embedded slave narratives has been essential in helping me to recognize the relations between these texts and the “official” ones where they have been preserved.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a few shorter pieces—a state-of-the-field essay on religion in U.S. literatures, themed around the relations between religion, superstition, and the literary, and another essay on work and rest in plantation landscapes, growing out of my SEA paper. I’m also at work on a longer project tracing the history of secularism through accounts of non-Christian religious practices in the literatures of the long nineteenth century Atlantic world.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve learned a ton this year from recent work by Black feminist scholars, especially Christina Sharpe and Katherine McKittrick. McKittrick’s work has been especially important in my teaching; her emphasis on how we live the history of the plantation in the present has been an essential touchstone in several of my classes and for my students. Ashon Crawley’s book on Black Pentecostalism has also been essential for my thinking about ontology and the idea of living otherwise.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
In addition to the scholars above—Elizabeth Dillon and Duncan Faherty both continually inspire me with the generosity they show junior scholars. And I still learn new things all the time from my Cornell grad school colleagues.
Toni W. Jaudon is Associate Professor of English at Hendrix College.